Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Gedolim Stories: Lies or Lunacy?

Yesterday Life in Israel had a post in which he related (and questioned) the following story:





A yeshiva bochur that was not interested in learning torah went to Rav Shteinman. He asked Rav Shteinman if he would like steak or ice cream.

Rav Shteinman asked what those things are, what the words mean. The boy responded that they are the names of very delicious foods. Rav Shteinman than said no, he would not want those foods.

The young man than said that if he is offering the rav food that everybody considers to be delicious, yet the rav does not want any of it, so "I can also not want to learn Torah even though everybody claims torah is very sweet. So why do they force me to learn torah?"

Rav Shteinman responded that if you would give someone honey and he would put it in his mouth and say it is bitter, it is a sign that this person has sores in his mouth. The same thing with Torah - someone who does not want to learn torah, it means that he has lashon ha'ra in his mouth and therefore has no desire to learn torah.




Like many stories meant to show the piety of the Gedolim, it instead makes its protagonist look foolish. It suggests both that R’ Shteinman is ignorant of something as common as ice cream and that he is not intelligent enough to understand that honey and ice cream fill the same niche in the analogies of this discussion.

It was while listening to a similar gadol story years ago that I realized that either these stories are less than accurate or the gedolim were nuts. In that story a group of talmidim were following a rav around while he did bedikas chometz. When he was finished, one of the talmidim said, “Rebbe, this is good, we searched the entire house and didn’t find even a crumb of chometz!” The rav ripped his shirt open, pounded on his chest, and cried out, “There is no chometz in the house, but in here, in here there is still chomtz!”

I think there are three possible origins for such stories.

1) It really happened as described. I can see that there are people who would be inspired by someone so holy that they are so immersed in Torah they don’t even know about common things like ice cream or who is given to effusive, exciting emotional displays of piety. To me, treating as near-divine the words of someone profoundly ignorant of the culture he lives in or of someone given to emotional outbursts seems foolish.

2) The story is based on a real incident, but is exaggerated for effect. There really was a bochur who complained to R’ Shteinman that he didn’t like learning, but there was no mention of ice cream. The rav pointed to his heart and bemoaned the presence of “chometz”, but he didn’t rip open his shirt, pound on his chest, and shout. This to me seems the most likely origin for gadol stories. Most people don’t make up stories, but will often embroider and exaggerate real incidents to make them more exciting.

3) The stories are completely made up.

Given the number of gadol stories circulating, chances are there are some that fall into each of the three categories.

It was crazy gadol stories like those above that started me questioning what I had been taught. For all that exaggerated stories may be inspiring to some, perhaps the frum community should think about the potential harm of such stories, both to people like me who may go from questioning silly stories about gedolim that are portrayed as semi-divine to questioning stories supposedly written by the Divine hand; and to the gedolim that both star in these stories and are made to look foolish by them.

16 comments:

  1. >"Gedolim Stories: Lies or Lunacy?"

    Does it have to be one or the other?

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  2. No, but "Lies and/or Lunacy" isn't as alliterative.

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  3. You have to remember that the Chareid "gedolim" live in a very different world than you, that many things you consider ubiquitous are unknown to them. You don't think twice before picking up a TV remote. Rav Shteinman wouldn't know which end to point at what item in the room. I wouldn't be surprised he's never had ice cream in his life. It's simply not part of his universe.
    But these stories are almost always exxagerated. I recall my local Chabad shaliach telling me the story of how one of the deceased Chabad rebbes had to be exhumed and moved to a new grave and when they unburied him and popped open his casket, guess what? His body was totally undecayed despite having been dead for many, many years, thus proving the maxim of Chazal that the forces of death cannot decompose the bodies of the righteous!
    And I told him: think about it. Let's say you were there. The casket is popped open and all you see are bones. What do you do? Do you shout out to the world that Chazal were wrong or exagerating? Do you shout out that your Rebbe wasn't the perfect tzadik you've been telling people he is? Or do you convince yourself you saw a pristing undecomposed corpse and tell people that because image is everything?

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  4. There’s a huge difference between a TV remote and ice cream. The Chareidi world holds TV is assur, while ice cream is common. Besides, according to the story, R’ Shteinman had never even heard of ice cream. While your right that he probably wouldn’t know how to work a TV, I’m sure he’s at least heard of television and has a vague idea of what it is. To have never even heard of a common food… it’s extremely unlikely.

    Re. the Chabad Rebbe story, I don’t think it happens that way. You’re suggesting that someone lied about what they saw, or at least forced themselves to be delusional. I think it’s more likely that someone who heard the story from someone who heard from someone who was there added the detail about the body’s pristine condition during a retelling. Perhaps the story as he heard it stressed the Rebbe’s tzidkis, and the two ideas, “the Rebbe was a tzaddik” and “tzaddikim don’t decompose” made him actually remember hearing that the Rebbe didn’t decompose. Memory is funny that way, and stories tend to grow over time.

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  5. I completely agree with you, G*3---these stories---of dubious provenance to begin with, and they only get more far-fetched as you go---may work well for small children and [the many] unquestioning, unthinking adults who're very easily impressed. But all thinking folk, beware---stuff like this erodes your emunah more than anything.

    There's also a certain disingenuousness regarding the need to be honest, even when telling stories for the purpose of enhancing people's frumkeit. Embroidering, if not fabricating, a whole dialogue, or series of events and presenting it as "what happened to Rav Ploni" is basically lying, if that's NOT, in fact precisely what happened. And people just don't seem to get this.

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  6. >I wouldn't be surprised he's never had ice cream in his life. It's simply not part of his universe.

    Who says its not? I realize he's an ascetic, but do you think he's never been to a sheva brachos in his past 90 years where ice cream was served for desert?

    Yes, the point of such shades and embelishment (whether they are not true or true) is to show how otherworldly he is. But I have to disagree that it makes sense that he would have never heard of ice cream.

    >But these stories are almost always exxagerated. I recall my local Chabad shaliach telling me the story of how one of the deceased Chabad rebbes had to be exhumed and moved to a new grave and when they unburied him and popped open his casket, guess what? His body was totally undecayed despite having been dead for many, many years, thus proving the maxim of Chazal that the forces of death cannot decompose the bodies of the righteous!

    >And I told him: think about it. Let's say you were there. The casket is popped open and all you see are bones. What do you do? Do you shout out to the world that Chazal were wrong or exagerating? Do you shout out that your Rebbe wasn't the perfect tzadik you've been telling people he is? Or do you convince yourself you saw a pristing undecomposed corpse and tell people that because image is everything?

    I was also raised on such stories. Not at home, but in school.

    There are two interesting parallels. One is when the Vilna Gaon's remains were moved in the 1950s. To this day "the world" says that those who removed his remains were astounded that the body was completely undecayed! Yet Leiman showed that in the one original account, a newspaper from the time, it says that they were surprised that the skeleton was intact.

    Another story, which you can see in many Sephrdic sources. The remains of the Chida were removed from its resting place in Italy to Israel around 1960. So goeth the legend: on the plane the coffin was jostled and the bones (yes, the bones) were dislocated. When the rishon le-sion, who was accompanying the body, reached in to rearrange them (distraught and regretful) a miracle happened! And the bones rearranged themselves.

    What, the Chida wasn't a tzaddik? Nothing like a miracle story to debunk a myth.

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  7. >>>.. someone who does not want to learn torah, it means that he has lashon ha'ra in his mouth and therefore has no desire to learn torah.

    Sure blame the skeptic. The skeptic is immoral or not smart enough to understand the truth of the torah, or has psycological problems...

    Or maybe the torah is just a bunch of nonsense and waste of time.

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  8. the basic idea to gedolim stories is as follows:
    1) if you believe none of them - you are an apirkursos
    2) if you believe all of them - you are a fool
    so what's the answer?
    3) you have to believe that it's possible that they happened, because some of them are true and some of them aren't (or at least exaggerated as you mentioned)
    I have a friend who once said that if all the stories that happened to the Ba'al Shem Tov on a Motzai Shabbas were true, then he must've lived into his 400's. I think that's a little exaggerated but the point is clear - there are just too many stories, and similar stories, that they can't all be exactly true the way they are said over. But that's exactly what happens with any story...it's told over once, twice, three times, details get left out, details get put in, details are exchanged and before you know it you have a whole new story. Then you have those stories that you're sure you heard but were really some small thing you heard that you turned into a story, or possibly combined with a story you heard about someone else.
    The point is as follows...not whether the story is true or not, but that there is a point to be learned from each story; a lesson in life. There is an entire section on this site http://hasidicstories.com/stories1.html#pesach called "Stories of Rabbi Pesach Mendel" that are dedicated to all made up stories. And yes they are very exaggerated and far reaching, and even far fetched. But they are fun to read and learn from. Maybe not for everyone, but for some.
    I am sorry that you had this failure in emunah due to these stories, and perhaps it was a mistake in the way they were told as being absolute fact, or perhaps you yourself took it too far and that brought about your failure in emunah - I don't know. But I am sure you can look into your life, or you have friends that can look into their lives and see some kind of miracle that happened at least once in their lifetime. Or you or your friends knows someone who is just so special you've had some kind of special experience that can be a story about him. Basically, you can see that these stories are possible, and can hold some truth to them, and I think that it's important to learn their life lessons and not be so critical of the other facets.

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    1. I've heard that said about Chassidishe stories, which tend to be miraculous, more than the type of story cited in this post, but whatever. I've heard it said about midrashim, too.

      As for miracles, a lot of that has to do with your frame of reference. For instance, I often see movement in my backyard that I unconsciously interpret as a moving person, but when I turn to look at it, no one is there. If I were inclined to believe in ghosts, I would interpret the movement as otherworldly visitors. Since I'm not, I interpret the movement as tree branched blowing in the wind reflected in the car windows.

      I think you're right, that lessons can be learned from stories. People do that all the time. I have no problem with learning lessons from fables. The problem is when these stories are presented as something that actually happened.

      Finally, my "failure in emunah" wasn't due to the stories. They were just one of many things that led me to my current worldview.

      "Failure in emunah" is an interesting phrase. I think it's an acceptable way to put it, as long as we're clear that my belief in Judaism failed in the same sense that a poorly built structure fails, and not in the sense that I should have struggled to hold onto belief, but failed.

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    2. I don't know how these stories were presented to you, and perhaps they were not presented a way that was the best, but at this point it seems you understand the point of them, so to hold onto the fact that they were presented to you as definite fact is a little ridiculous.

      I don't know the rest of your life and what else led you to this failure of emunah but you do seem to be admitting that there is validity to emunah, yours was just built poorly. As long as you recognize that there is a G-d and truth to Judaism, there are people you can talk to, to help you rebuild your emunah in a stronger, well built fashion

      Your emunah doesn't have to crumble. All you need is a spark of it, which you indeed have, and it can light the rest of you up!

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    3. > to hold onto the fact that they were presented to you as definite fact is a little ridiculous

      Eh. I blog because it’s fun. Poking fun at silly stories is fun. Pointing out inconsistencies in people’s attempts to vilify those they disagree with is fun and satisfying. There really isn’t any more to it than that.

      > As long as you recognize that there is a G-d and truth to Judaism

      I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression, but I don’t. I don’t think there’s any good reason to think that there is a God, and certainly not the anthropomorphic tri-omni God of traditional Judaism. Nor do I think that Judaism represents anything Divine. There is value in it, as there is in any culture, and I value it all the more as MY culture, but I don’t think Judaism’s tenets are true. Just the opposite. I’ve discovered that nearly everything I was taught is wrong.

      Nor do I think that I need to be “lit up.” (Which is a nice turn of phrase, BTW.) I’m quite happy, despite being an atheist and a nihilist. Go figure, right?

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    4. I'm sorry you feel that way. I wish you could have experience a better life. You didn't give me any false impression, I think you are giving yourself a false impression, and my only hope is that one day you realize that.

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    5. http://www.jewishideas.org/articles/are-gedolim-stories-good-chinuch-1
      I happened upon this site just after I responded to you. It addresses some of your concerns. I hope that it is helpful.

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    6. > I think you are giving yourself a false impression

      Not sure what you mean.Do you mean that I'm wrong about Judaism? It's possible, though obviously I don't think I am. I've read a lot about the subject, and theological proofs are unconvincing at best. Jewish theological proofs tend to be awful, a la the Kuzari.

      Do you mean I'm fooling myself about being happy? Happiness is a subjective emotion, so if I think I'm happy, I am.

      Thanks for the link. To start with, psychoanalysis has been largely discarded by the mental health field. People are not boilers. That said, he makes some good points, but he's discussing white-washing Gedolim's lives and passing off these hagiographies as biographies. I agree that making Gedolim into infallible demigods who were always perfect and knew all of shas by the time they were seven creates many problems, but that's not what I was discussing here. What I was discussing is the tendency where, in an effort to make a Gadol seem more holy, the story is exaggerated to the point where it makes the protagonist seem like a crazy person. It's a related problem, but not quite the same thing.

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    7. Yes, I believe you are wrong about Judaism. I have also read up on the subject and seen the proofs, and true, while no one is full proof, because you can't actually prove G-d, it's the combination of a many very convincing proofs that make it "proven". And using scientific terminology, that makes G-d the most parsimonious explanation. I am not sure which proofs you are referring to, so I can't comment specifically, but I think that each one builds upon the previous. Of course, there is still an aspect of faith, but the proofs certainly help the faith.

      Not sure where you saw me saying you weren't happy, I am sure you are very happy. I think maybe what you are referencing is when I said that I wish you had a better life. I think I phrased that wrong. What I meant to say is that I wish you had had a better experience as a youngster, that's all.

      True, psychoanalysis has been discarded, but that wasn't the point I was illustrating, and yes I know it's not exactly addressing your issues. The point I was bringing out to you was more towards the end I think where he discusses stories about Gedolim being real people, and real stories that are not exaggerated. The point being, that yes there are issues in what is told and how it is told, but that doesn't mean to forget it all. It just means we have to correct the way it's told and how it's told. I know you said that these stories are only one among many things that turned you off, but you've found that these stories decreased your emunah. And apparently that seems logical for that to happen, because they were not told right. So I am saying, just because it was given over improperly to you, doesn't mean you need to leave it all. You can just find the right stories, which do exist, and right tellers, which do exist as well.

      Fix the problem, don't run away from it.

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  9. Yes, I believe you are wrong about Judaism. I have also read up on the subject and seen the proofs, and true, while no one is full proof, because you can't actually prove G-d, it's the combination of a many very convincing proofs that make it "proven". And using scientific terminology, that makes G-d the most parsimonious explanation. I am not sure which proofs you are referring to, so I can't comment specifically, but I think that each one builds upon the previous. Of course, there is still an aspect of faith, but the proofs certainly help the faith.

    Not sure where you saw me saying you weren't happy, I am sure you are very happy. I think maybe what you are referencing is when I said that I wish you had a better life. I think I phrased that wrong. What I meant to say is that I wish you had had a better experience as a youngster, that's all.

    True, psychoanalysis has been discarded, but that wasn't the point I was illustrating, and yes I know it's not exactly addressing your issues. The point I was bringing out to you was more towards the end I think where he discusses stories about Gedolim being real people, and real stories that are not exaggerated. The point being, that yes there are issues in what is told and how it is told, but that doesn't mean to forget it all. It just means we have to correct the way it's told and how it's told. I know you said that these stories are only one among many things that turned you off, but you've found that these stories decreased your emunah. And apparently that seems logical for that to happen, because they were not told right. So I am saying, just because it was given over improperly to you, doesn't mean you need to leave it all. You can just find the right stories, which do exist, and right tellers, which do exist as well.

    Fix the problem, don't run away from it.

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